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In Search of Mercy: A Mystery by Michael Ayoob
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312644925
Date: 12 October 2010 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

In 1993, seventeen-year-old Dexter Bolzjak of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, is a high school hockey star with long hair and feminine good looks. After his coach boots him out of a game, he is driving alone on a secluded road, Old Watermill, when he stops his car to help a woman injured in a car accident. It is a trap; the woman is a mannequin; and four homophobic rednecks abduct Dexter and film their sexual assault on him.

Eight years later, Dexter is an antisocial recluse. He lives in the basement of his best friend, Judd Hargauer, who is obsessed with slasher films. He works with misfits in a warehouse, loading fruits and vegetables. Dexter is approached by Lou Kashon, an aging, alcoholic Arab who is dying of cancer. Lou offers to pay Dexter to find a starlet, Mercy Carnahan, who disappeared over forty years ago. During his search, Dexter encounters many bizarre characters who, like himself, are forever trapped in the past.

It is obvious from reading In Search of Mercy that the author, Michael Ayoob, is very knowledgeable about ice hockey and film history, specifically the slasher film classics. The novel's plot centers around both subjects. The main characters, Dexter Bolzjak and Mercy Callahan, are stars of hockey and film, respectively. Both are emotionally scarred by success; both choose to hide from a potentially harmful society by disappearing into worlds of their own creation. Hockey and slasher films have much in common; for example, fans of both love to see gratuitous violence.

Michael Ayoob is quite the master of the macabre; he must've been influenced by such Italian directors as Mario Bava and Dario Argento. One of his minor characters, Judd Hargauer, has an unhealthy obsession with horror films. He earns his living by editing homemade videos of sadistic, true-life crimes. Dexter also enjoys horror films, but to a lesser extent than Judd; some of his favorites are Hellraiser, My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, Suspiria and Deep Red. I was pleasantly surprised when Dexter also mentioned Gates of Hell (unedited Italian version is titled City of the Living Dead), directed by Italian goremeister Lucio Fulci. A fan of horror films myself, I’ve seen all the titles of which Dexter spoke.

In Search of Mercy contains explicit language and graphic depictions of sexual abuse. Eventually the reader learns the gruesome details of the humiliation and torture inflicted upon Dexter; it was a shocking, horrifying scene that won’t be easily erased from the reader’s conscious. Keep in mind that Dexter was still a minor. Also, there is a scene involving a perverted plastic surgeon who has inflicted horrors upon his own family; it is a scene reminiscent of horror classics such as Danny Steinmann‘s The Unseen. Furthermore, the creepy use of mannequins and dummies is prevalent throughout the novel, giving it a Twilight Zone atmosphere.

The reader can't help but feel sympathy towards Dexter Bolzjak. Hate-filled hockey fans chant "Goalchick!" and call him numerous names. (I found it difficult to believe that fans at a high school hockey game in 1993 could be so rude and crude.) Dexter comes from a broken home. His parents are divorced and his mom Samantha has moved away. After the sexual assault, he began ignoring his father Marvin, owner of a novelty store that sells fake dog poop and other obnoxious gag gifts. During the week, Dexter merely goes to work at Marchicomo's Warehouse and later crashes each evening in Judd's basement; on weekends, he steals Judd's mom's anxiety drugs and slumbers the hours away until Monday morning.

Dexter has a second chance to redeem himself and regain his sense of self-respect and self-worth when Lou Kashon asks him to become a private investigator and find Mercy Callahan. Dexter's persistence to locate the reclusive actress forced me to admire him. Also, he truly cares about Lou who is dying in the hospital. Dexter's romantic interest and sidekick is his new manager Gen who, like himself, has many emotional problems created by family tragedy. Together, they travel from Pennsylvania to New York and interview very bizarre characters who knew Mercy.

Learning to let go of one's cruel past is the focal point of In Search of Mercy. Characters can't seem to escape their tragic pasts or they are fixated on reliving their pasts. It is as though, especially in the case of Mercy, their best years are far behind them. Now I understand why forgiveness is so very important. One can’t let go of the past and live for the future until they’ve forgiven those who have hurt them.

A unique blend of psychological horror and private investigative work, In Search of Mercy is highly recommended for mature mystery fans. (Keep this one away from the children.) It provides a graphic account of the emotional trauma inflicted on a person years after a sexual assault. In the future, I hope to read more novels from Michael Ayoob, especially ones that reference or pay homage to my favorite slasher films. He is definitely a new voice that needs to be heard. In Search of Mercy is too unique for me to think of similar novels that should be read. However, I do recommend that you watch some of the slasher films that were referenced in this novel. I have an entire collection of them.

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